Instant analysis: Question marks on Iowa football's unbeaten start were apparently well-deserved
The game Hawkeyes' fans dreaded finally arrived in the seventh game of the season. Iowa lost the turnover battle, didn't lead in time of possession and allowed several big plays to Purdue's offense.
Purdue notched their fourth win in five years over Iowa on Saturday 24-7 and a lot of early season question marks came back to haunt the Hawkeyes.
One of Iowa's biggest question marks entering the 2021 season were both lines of scrimmage. On Saturday, both units were overwhelmed.
It started offensively, where Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis became a game-wrecker early on. On the second drive of the game, lined up against starting right tackle Nick DeJong, Karlaftis collapsed the pocket allowing for teammate Branson Deen to get a sack and force a punt. Offensive line coach George Barnett had seen enough and subbed in junior Jack Plumb for the next few series' and the two continued to alternate.
Late in the third quarter, down 17-7, the Hawkeyes caught a fortunate break. Purdue receiver TJ Sheffield lost control of the ball diving for the endzone and fumbled, resulting in a touchback. The next sequence of plays went as followed: sack by Deen, sack by Karlaftis, incomplete, punt. Purdue had more sacks in Saturday's game (4) than they had all season (2).
That's the type of day it was for Iowa's offense: Missed opportunities all around.
The Hawkeyes elected to receive on the opening kick and immediately sprung for a 38-yard completion to receiver Keagan Johnson. The next sequence of plays went as followed: 1-yard run, 3-yard loss on run and interception. Two possessions later, the Hawkeyes went on a 17-play drive spanning nearly eight minutes and converted four of five third downs. The drive ended with kicker Caleb Shudak missing his second field goal of the year.
Early in the fourth quarter, senior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin returned a kick 67 yards to the Purdue 19-yard line with Iowa trailing 24-7. Once again, Iowa's offense failed to capitalize when they left the possession without points. The Petras' quarterback sneak, a nearly 100% conversion-rate play this year, was snuffed out by Purdue's defensive line.
Entering today's game, no team started possessions in an opponent's territory more than Iowa (25%). Today, their average starting field position was their own 25-yard line minus the drive that started on the Purdue 19-yard line.
It was inevitable that a game would arrive where the offense would have to generate momentum without outstanding field position from their defense and special teams.
The question was, could it?
At least on Saturday, Iowa couldn't.
There were moments where the offense executed but were unable to string together continuous momentum and were undone by mistakes.
On defense, it was an uncharacteristically bad day.
Purdue receiver David Bell, a notable Hawkeye adversary, had his third consecutive big game against the secondary, this time hauling in 11 catches for 240 yards and one touchdown. Bell alone outgained Iowa's pass offense, which had only 195 yards.
Iowa's defense prides itself on limiting the big play. On Saturday, the Boilermakers made a living on them. Quarterback Aiden O'Connell completed 30 of 40 passes (75%) for 375 yards and two touchdowns. On the day, Purdue averaged 12.6 yards per completion. O'Connell operated freely throughout the day due to a lack of pressure.
Iowa's defensive line was a notable and positive storyline early in the season but in recent weeks has taken a step back. Last week against Penn State the unit didn't record a sack and that 0-fer was repeated in Saturday's loss. The lone Iowa sack came on a Seth Benson sack on a blitz play in the third quarter.
Purdue's offense overmatched Iowa's defense. They converted 9 of 14 third downs, led time of possession by over 10 minutes and completed a rare feat this year: went an entire game without throwing an interception.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz has said from the beginning of the year that this season would be split into two parts: the first seven games, a re-evaluation during the bye week and the final five games. The Hawkeyes will be going into that re-evaluation period with a sour taste in their mouths.
The good news for Iowa is that everything they want this season is still in front of them. Last week's win over Penn State ensures they'll remain in the national conversation and in the Big Ten West are in good shape. Purdue holds the tiebreaker but still have Top 10 opponents Michigan State and Ohio State on their schedule. With one loss and an undefeated finish by Iowa, they're in the Big Ten title game.
But the margin of error has become razor-thin. Everything that could've gone wrong, did, and the results showed what can happen when the brand of team football fans have seen during the lengthy win streak doesn't show up.
Iowa's next opponent — Wisconsin — will present a massive challenge, and it's compounded by the fact that it's on the road.
Fortunately, they'll have plenty of time to re-calibrate for what will be a critical second half run.
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com